Despite a body of work that now spans almost half a century, director Agnès Varda has never fit comfortably into the French film industry. Although generally considered to be the only female member of the French New Wave, she completed her first feature, La pointe-courte, several years before colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy (who became her husband) were able to do so. Only in the Sixties, in the wake of the New Wave's liberating influence, did she seem to find a place.
Even then, Varda's uniqueness--particularly her feminist perspective and her interest in using documentaries and shorts as experiments--was obvious. Unlike many of the New Wave auteurs, she wasn't a film critic or even much of a cinephile. Her interest in filmmaking sprang out of a background in photography rather than hours spent at the fabled Cinémathèque Française or the offices of Cahiers du cinéma. In 1964 she even composed a half-hour film, "Salut les Cubains," out of 1,500 stills she had taken on a trip to Cuba. Over the past 30 years, her oeuvre seems to have scattered, especially since financial and personal difficulties have often kept her from making fictional features. Nevertheless, as Walker Art Center's current eight-film Varda retro makes clear, the director has managed to create one international splash in each of five decades: Cléo From 5 to 7 in the Sixties; One Sings, the Other Doesn't in the Seventies; Vagabond in the Eighties; Jacquot in the Nineties; and, recently, The Gleaners and I, which generated excitement on last year's festival circuit.
Varda's oeuvre is so eclectic that it's difficult to single out any one film as offering the best point of entry for newcomers. The director herself implicitly suggests that The Gleaners and I--which introduces the concept of gleaning (foraging fields for post-harvest leftovers) as a metaphor for Varda's own DIY aesthetic--might serve as an introduction to her ethos. (Alas, the Walker's screening--on February 23 at 7:00 p.m.--is scheduled to conclude its series.) In any case, Gleaners, shot on digital video with a minuscule crew, is an appealingly homemade work. Speaking with a wit reminiscent of fellow documentarian Chris Marker, Varda travels around France interviewing present-day gleaners and their urban counterparts, who rummage through dumpsters and trash cans rather than the countryside. As a portrait of this varied bunch (often celebrated in French culture, in forms ranging from 19th-century painting to hip-hop songs), the film is fascinating. The gleaners defy easy stereotyping. Not surprisingly, many are homeless or impoverished people who can survive only by finding free food. But others are middle-class, anti-consumerist anarchists or artists looking for collage material. One is a gourmet chef who picks wild herbs for use in his $100 dinners.
Focusing entirely on the gleaners might have been a wise decision, since the "and I" portion of The Gleaners and I is more problematic. Aiming for the eclectic range of Marker's film and video essays, Varda throws in a host of issues that crossed her mind while making it: reflections on the prehistory of cinema, the exciting possibilities of new video technology (including the wonderful image of her lens cap "dancing" before her camera), and her own mortality. Unfortunately, Varda never quite integrates such introspection with her interest in the gleaners' lives. Instead of fitting into a larger package, these asides feel gratuitous at best and self-indulgent at worst. Additionally, the filmmaker sets up false parallels between gleaning and her shopping excursions. Buying souvenirs in Japan and searching for leftover potatoes are hardly the same thing.
Varda's most underrated film is Le bonheur (which screened at the Walker last Saturday, but is readily available on video), undoubtedly because it can easily be misinterpreted as an ode to the très français pleasures of picnicking, fine wine, and adultery, rather than a critique of them. Handsome carpenter François (Jean-Claude Drouot) leads a seemingly idyllic existence with his equally attractive wife Thérèse and their two children (played by Drouot's real-life family--a documentary touch in an otherwise ultra-stylized film). François is living the French Dream, complete with a mistress on the side, and he couldn't be happier. Cinematographer Jean Rabier's landscape compositions draw from impressionist painting, while his blazing palette--complete with fades to red and blue--nearly outdoes the colorful excess of Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Flowers bloom in the background of almost every scene.
Le bonheur has often been taken for a mash note to its protagonist's complacency, but Varda's style offers some clues as to her real agenda. In her book The Cinema in France, the generally perceptive feminist critic Jill Forbes calls it "an [ideologically] unforgivable film," adding the aesthetic complaint that "it is filmed in an idiom that sets one's teeth on edge." But that's precisely the point. The pastoral setting, the bright colors, and the wall-to-wall Mozart are so relentlessly and hyperbolically cheerful that the film comes to resemble a feature-length douche commercial. Inevitably, a crack appears in this façade, as François's affair ends badly. Nevertheless, his happiness continues. Beneath its sunny surface, Le bonheur delivers a scathing attack on male self-absorption and stupidity, and on the reduction of women to interchangeable objects. (The finale--a replay of the opening scene's picnic, with another woman in Thérèse's place--could hardly make the latter point clearer.) Family values and le bonheur march on, heedless of the individuals who are trampled under foot.
Structured as an investigation into the final days of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young homeless woman who freezes to death in a ditch, Vagabond (Wednesday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m.) begins with the discovery of her body. From there, it uses her journey across Southern France--during one of the coldest winters in the nation's history--to present a cross-section of post-counterculture society: an ex-hippie farmer who smugly claims to have found a "middle ground between freedom and loneliness"; a college professor who investigates tree-rotting fungi (originally brought over by Americans, in a subtle bit of symbolism); Arab vineyard workers; druggies who hang out at a train station and hassle tourists for money. Although the film is set in 1985, the year it was made, the presiding mood of burnout feels more like 1975. Indeed, in its despairing postmortem of Sixties idealism, Vagabond is a belated counterpart to films like Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation.
Sympathetic without being particularly likable (cf. Le bonheur's François), Mona is needy, selfish, and prone to using people for temporary access to food, shelter, money, or drugs, and then running away as quickly as possible. Even so, men tend to desire her, while women view her as a symbol of liberation--an impression often tinged with class condescension. In their own ways, people of both genders objectify Mona, rather than accepting her own, admittedly prickly terms. Her moments of real connection are few, far between, and short-lived.
Two other films in the Walker series--Cléo From 5 to 7 (Saturday, February 10 at 7:00 p.m.) and One Sings, the Other Doesn't (Saturday, February 17 at 7:00 p.m.)--center on female performers. In the first, Cléo doesn't realize how she has allowed herself to be made into a puppet of male manipulators until she suspects that she may have cancer; while Pomme, the heroine of One Sings, the Other Doesn't is a Gallic Helen Reddy who could hardly be a better feminist role model. Mona has little in common with either of these women, and she's never onstage, yet Vagabond is equally concerned with the way in which women's lives are often viewed as performances. This view cuts particularly deep because it lets neither gender off the hook: Almost everyone Mona meets either rejects or wants to rescue her. How could Mona be led toward a happier fate without being tamed? This question lingers long after the film's oddly mythical ending.
Varda's next major work, Jacquot, is far more cheerful, even though it was made while Demy was dying of AIDS. An enormously generous gesture, this biography would be the first of Varda's three films about her husband. (Disappointingly, if not surprisingly, neither it nor Varda's 1993 documentary The World of Jacques Demy acknowledges his bisexuality.) Weaving together three strands, Jacquot mixes documentary footage of Demy speaking about his childhood, Varda's fictional re-creations of his youth, and clips from his films.
Inspired both by a puppet show and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Demy found his métier early and pursued it with a relentless single-mindedness. Although he insists he had a happy childhood, Demy had to struggle against his father, a garage owner who forced him to attend technical school and scoffed at his ambition. Alas, Jacquot largely ignores Demy's inner life in order to track his dogged pursuit of his craft. (Growing impatient with other people's unreliability, Demy turns to animation and finally finds his voice.) The film is not likely to mean much to an audience unfamiliar with Demy's work, since most of its emotional resonance stems from the rhymes between his childhood and the images he came to create. Additionally, Varda's mix of black and white with color (often in the same scene, with no apparent rationale) can be confusing, especially if one doesn't recognize the origin of the clips. Nevertheless, Jacquot is a moving elegy that avoids the coming-of-age genre's sentimental pitfalls.
Judging from the youthful joie de vivre of the early New Wave films (including Varda's Cléo From 5 to 7), it's surprising how well the directors of this movement have aged. (I'd gladly take The Gleaners and I over the vast majority of work by Francis Ford Coppola or Brian De Palma during the past 20 years.) The wide range of Varda's oeuvre makes it nearly impossible to offer any sort of cursory summary, but one thing many of her films have in common is that their modesty belies their ambition. At the beginning of a new century, The Gleaners and I has as much to say about life in the century's first decade--especially the chinks in corporate capitalism's armor--as Cléo From 5 to 7 and Le bonheur did about the need for women's liberation, and Vagabond did about the aftermath of the Sixties. If The Gleaners and I should turn out to be Varda's final film, it would be a fine epilogue to an uneven but hugely valuable body of work.
The Agnès Varda retrospective continues at Walker Art Center through February 23, and includes a dialogue between the filmmaker and critic Bérénice Reynaud on Tuesday, February 20 at 8:00 p.m. For more information on the series, call (612) 375-7622.